To weary parents, there is something very appealing in the measured pace of life in this Arcadia. Greendale, where Postman Pat lives, is a place of order and harmony such as any adult with young children might envy. At the same time there is a kernel of truth and wry humour in both plot and dialogue which prevents the stories from being merely simplistic. And where else on television would you find a programme with the confidence to linger over
a shot of Granny Dryden studying her new mail-order catalogue? The question is, do programme-makers deliberately set out to woo parents? They are the ones with the purchasing power to buy videos and the ones who have to endure their incessant background babble.
At the end of last month, Buena Vista (Disney) released The Jungle Book on video for the first time in the UK. The tape went barrelling straight up the video charts, and will probably stay there for months. To prevent market saturation, Disney is notoriously frugal with video releases of its classics, so each one is eagerly awaited. But all children's animation is big business. In the current Gallup CIN video chart 15 of the top 50 titles are children's animations, including Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan and The Little Mermaid from Disney, as well as Beatrix Potter's The Tailor of Gloucester (Pickwick), Thomas the Tank Engine (Britt Allcroft) and Noddy (BBC Video).
The Jungle Book, first released in the cinema in 1967, set out overtly to cater for the whole family, with spectacular success. The adult appeal of Kipling's tale of the rite of passage of the man-cub Mowgli was maintained by the animals' recognisable, grown- up characteristics and a series of songs that have become jazz classics in their own right. Pre-school titles such as BBC Video's Postman Pat, or Noddy, or Pingu, are different. Their adult appeal is a much more covert and apparently incidental thing. Nowhere on the video packaging does it say: 'And parents] These stories are sophisticated and can be enjoyed on more than one level.' Nowhere is it openly acknowledged, for instance, that The Magic Roundabout (BBC Video) includes in its cast of characters a rabbit who appears to be heavily under the influence of narcotics.
'We don't take adults into consideration at all,' insists Theresa Plummer-Andrews, head of acquisitions and creative development at BBC Enterprises. 'We don't care about the rest of the family. If it happens to appeal to them that's fine, but I'm looking at it from a child's point of view.'
Pingu began life as a two-minute pilot presented by a Swiss team at Cannes and featuring, in Ms Plummer-Andrews's words, 'a penguin running around in the snow for two minutes'. The problem was that it had no real storyline for toddlers to follow. She sent the team away to come up with some stories, and the rest is under-fives animation history. Pingu goes fishing, delivers the mail, gets a new baby sister, goes sledging or plays tennis using a fish as a ball. 'Now I get 35-year-olds phoning up saying: 'When's the next Pingu video out?',' says Ms Plummer-Andrews, with some exasperation.
Pingu is unusual in that there is no narrator and no real dialogue. The best children's animations, from The Magic Roundabout to Fireman Sam (BBC Video), have nearly always had one thing in common: a deadpan narrative voice, which is the antithesis of the frantic, self-indulgent clowning of so many under-fives programmes featuring real grown-ups. Of course there are some animated series that set your teeth on edge when you watch them for the 19th time, but so long as parents are the ones doing the buying, these can easily be proscribed.
One of the supremos of the world of under-fives animation is Ivor Wood of Woodland Animation. Mr Wood was in at the beginning of The Magic Roundabout with Serge Danot in Paris (first shown on TV in 1965); he was involved with both The Wombles and Paddington (first on TV in 1976), and he designs and produces Postman Pat. It annoys him that Postman Pat is accused of presenting too idealised a world.
In fact Pat is based on a real postman in Cumbria, whose job is partly to act as a link to a scattered community, delivering messages and goods between the farmhouses, checking up on elderly people, even running a post bus for those who cannot get about. 'All that trundling about in the mail van is Pat's day's work,' points out Mr Wood. 'He has to deliver to all those places.'
Like all good fantasies, Postman Pat is grounded in reality. It is probably at least as true to rural life as All Creatures Great and Small or Heartbeat. So does Woodland Animation expect to appeal to adults? 'Not really - it doesn't come into our perception that much,' Ivor Wood says. He is too modest.
The Jungle Book (Buena Vista, U, pounds 14.99). The second-highest grossing animated film ever, after Disney's own Snow White. The last animated Disney in which Disney himself was involved. Strictly speaking, as a family feature, in a different category from the under-fives titles that follow, but included to show how universal appeal is achieved, viz: classic story, imaginative voice casting (with the cultured, sinister voice of George Sanders as Shere Khan the tiger), original characters, anthropomorphic animation (with Baloo the bear displaying the mannerisms of the singer and band leader Phil Harris), great jazz.
The Magic Roundabout (5 tapes, BBC Video, U, pounds 8.99 each). The original, many-layered, multi-referential children's animation tales for adults - the one fathers rushed home from work to catch in the 1960s. Two-dimensional sets, three- dimensional characterisation: irascible Dougal, sweet Florence, batty Ermintrude, jolly Brian, laid-back Dylan and Zebedee. Boiiing] Time for bed]
Postman Pat (5 tapes, BBC Video, U, pounds 8.99 each). A completely benign rural world, in which nothing ever happens. Magnificently free of vulgar, attention-grabbing content such as wicked or even mischievous characters, or 'adventures' of any sort. Full of the little hitches and organisational complexities of real life. This is Pinter in a minor key, Beckett on happy pills.
Pingu (4 tapes, BBC Video, U, pounds 8.99 each). Penguin drama made in Switzerland. No dialogue, no plot complexities. Set in an unpromisingly barren polar landscape. Comedy derives from Pingu's rubbery expressiveness and the collision of penguin youth culture with everyday igloo life. Pingu's picaresque adventures involve skiing, skating, snowmen.
Fireman Sam (7 tapes, BBC Video, U, pounds 8.99 each). The most knowingly contemporary of them all. An animated soap opera set in 'Pontypandy', a convincing Welsh village of grey stone and slate. Has a village gossip in curlers, an Italian cafe owner, 'Bella Lasagne', and a black bus driver, 'Trevor the Bus'. Children say things like 'Brill]' and 'Wicked]'. The only one with a hint of sexual intrigue. Narrated by John Alderton in an unexpected array of Welsh accents.
TO BE AVOIDED
Thomas the Tank Engine (leaden, moralising); Huxley Pig (intrusive, irritating narration); The Animals of Farthing Wood (self-righteous European co-production); Junglies (childish); Spot (cissy); Rupert the Bear (same as he's always been).
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